Some 45 years ago, there was a famous case of two children—a brother and sister—who stuffed their instrument cases with clothes and pooled their money for a train ticket to New York City, where they found shelter in the Met.
Or so, at least, was the premise of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the quaint and lovely children’s book by E.L. Konigsburg. Now it seems all such runaways will have to find a different museum, or scrimp a little more—because, as the New York Daily News reported, the Met’s new lease gives them the right to institute mandatory admission fees. The update comes on the heels of a scuffle this summer over exactly how forcefully “suggested donations” can be, er, suggested.
Legal imbroglio aside—there were just two lawsuits, thanks to the “deceptive” ticketing process—most visitors have experienced the cool shakedown at the ticket window once or twice and know the museum is not kidding around. I’ve been harassed over admissions fees there myself, even with a CUID. “They’re so mean,” one clerk at the Whitney whispered conspiratorially after I spent a paltry dollar at their pay-what-you-will night. “We’re not like that here.”
For the uninformed, the “suggested” amount for a normal adult ticket comes in at a neat $25. For one person. Yearly membership to the Met is $70, which means if someone’s planning on visiting more than twice a year, they might as well cave—provided they have the dough. But hey, at least then the 10 percent discount off everything in the museum store is thrown in with admission.
At the heart of it, what stings the most about the Met’s decision to charge is the price tag. As much as we’re told “it’s not about the money money money” (God that song is obnoxious), the reality is that when mandatory admission is instated, it really is.
According to its website (which apparently hasn’t been updated since 2000), the Met was first founded in 1870 by “a group of American citizens—businessmen and financiers as well as leading artists sic and thinkers of the day—who wanted to create a museum to bring art and art education to the American people.”
Bad news, American people, and especially New Yorkers: They’ll bring you the art and art education after you bring them your money (and that’s aside from taxes—the museum receives tens of thousands of dollars in tax money from the city each year). As part of the Met’s 1971 charter, the city commissioner specifically negotiated a pay-what-you-will deal.
The Met, at its noblest, should be defined by its place in the city. Like the New York Public Library, it exists as an iconic cultural institution that belongs to the public, and thus should be open to it. People have relationships with the museum, whether they are formed by a school trip or a rainy weekend visit.
But the looming threat of mandatory admission severs these connections. The benevolence of the museum’s founders falls by the wayside when the public it should be open to is stripped down to those who can afford it—when all too frequently, those who can’t afford it are the ones who need it the most. Arts-focused charities like Art Start, All-Stars Project, Inc., and Free Arts NYC do their best to inspire and enable disadvantaged youth, but their reach (and art collections) can’t compare to the Met’s.
I’m not saying that people should be fighting for their right to pay nothing if they can. The Met deserves its revenue, and if you can afford to pay, you should. But it’s not as if people haven’t been contributing—they have. The average admission paid last year was $11, and attendance is on a steady rise, even in an age where arts programs are facing mass defunding. And once again: The Met benefits from massive grants.
So what gives? If the lease is the Met’s response to the lawsuits, it’s akin to Condé Nast’s own recent lawsuit resolution over interns, where it eliminated internships instead of confronting the gray area. This type of cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face solution is wrong—sure, it closes down future lawsuits, but at a grave (nonmonetary) cost. The right thing? Reinforce a commitment to access for all.